The Austin Chronicle

Picks 2 Click

SXSW 2003

By Michael Chamy, February 28, 2003, Music

Shane Bartell

"I got really drunk and fell into a river, and I got out of the river, and I decided I had to move to Portland," explains Austin's Shane Bartell. "It's all a little hazy right now."

What's not hazy is the music of Shane Bartell, who wasn't really Shane Bartell until he returned from Portland, Ore., where he spent all of 1999 retooling his approach to songwriting. Before that, he was Shane Bartell, frontman of Austin's Cling, a "fey, Sundays-inspired" anglophile pop band that played gigs from 1994 to 1998, including opening slots for Liz Phair and Oasis. When he moved back to town, he was Shane Bartell, period. It takes one listen to the classic pop genius of would-be hits "Up for Air" and "If I Could Only Get My Head out of the Gutter" off 2001's Reference EP to understand what that means.

"Technically, I'm a singer-songwriter," says Bartell, 29, "but I don't come from that tradition hardly at all."

Indeed not. Most singer-songwriters don't mention the Sex Pistols in the same sentence as Cole Porter, and most don't seek to befriend critics with the sole purpose of getting them shitfaced drunk. Like many critics, Bartell professes a love for early-Nineties shoegazer bands like My Bloody Valentine and Swervedriver. It shows in his ability to pilot a rousing pop song down paths unforeseen, whether it's adding a spike of organ, a dash of reverb, or occasional patches of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-like weirdness.

Then there's that voice. Powerful, distinct, clear, at times it's reminiscent of Brits Morrissey or Tim Booth of James in its ability to carry a song. Yet it's American enough to garner the ubiquitous Jeff Buckley comparisons.

It's never been on display quite as it is on Too Soon to Tell, his June self-release. Now that the upbeat Reference built him enough of a fan base to pull off a handful of successful West Coast tours, Bartell is ready to unveil what he calls his "heartbreaking record." The songs are clean slow-burners, patient and infused with elements of jazz and bossa nova and occasional pockets of soft fuzz and reverb that recall the like-minded Red House Painters. Like the Painters' Mark Kozelek, Bartell is unafraid of letting the arrangements, and even the silence, have their slice of the pie.

"The idea is, I can make a song and have either Sonic Youth guitars in it or take it and have a New Orleans Dixieland jazz sound."

Though he's already demonstrated the talent and charisma to pen-rousing pop songs with "hit" written all over them, Bartell prefers to meet success on his own terms.

"Labels weird me out," admits Bartell. "I've had some label interest; I've turned some label interest away."

Bartell's ideal situation?

"Not to have to play the industry's games. Do something that you think is beautiful, with integrity, and have people react to it. Honestly, does it get any better? I could not imagine how."

SXSW showcase: Mother Egan's, Wednesday, March 12, 8pm

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